On December 1, World AIDS Day, city officials along with activists and community members gathered for the unveiling of New York City’s long-awaited AIDS Memorial. Designed by architecture firm Studio a + i with a surrounding inscription of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” by Jenny Holzer, the memorial stands near the site of St. Vincent’s Hospital, home to the country’s second dedicated AIDS ward, considered the disease’s “ground zero” in NYC.
The site is of course symbolic, but as Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker points out, it’s also representative of the epidemic’s fraught relationship to real estate in New York City. The hospital, save for its sawtooth O’Toole Building, was demolished in 2013 to make way for The Greenwich Lane, Rudin Development’s wildly expensive—and wildly successful—townhouse and condo project.
It wasn’t just later at St. Vincent’s, in the wake of sickness and uncertainty, that developers took advantage of the 1980s land grab. Manhattan’s neighborhood’s with the highest rates of infection were also the neighborhoods that “experienced the most marked and rapid gentrification in the ensuing years,” Schwartz writes. “Whether consciously or not, we build our homes on the graves of others.”
Schwartz’s essay is complicated, and worth a full read, but here’s a TL;DR version, using the most poignant quotes from the piece.
- “The disease started charting its course through the city just as the bearish real-estate market, coaxed out of hibernation by policies favorable to developers, turned relentlessly bullish.”
- “A triangular monument in Triangle Park on a triangular plot of land is more than a pleasing coincidence of geometry. In Nazi concentration camps, gay prisoners were made to identify themselves by wearing a pink triangle. The famous “Silence = Death” poster, designed in 1986 to demand that attention be paid and action taken against AIDS, claimed that shape and inverted it, drawing a parallel between the two catastrophes while positing the triangle as a symbol of pride and defiance.”
- “The first big Housing Committee demonstration took place on Black Friday of 1988. It targeted the symbolic face of nineteen-eighties, greed-is-good New York real estate: Donald Trump.”
- “The risk of a memorial is that it seems to certify the past as past, signed and sealed. The effect of the plague years has never stopped reverberating throughout the city.”
- “The effect of the plague years has never stopped reverberating throughout the city. In her 2012 book “Gentrification of the Mind,” the writer Sarah Schulman cites a report by the National Research Council on the social impact that AIDS had in Manhattan, noting that the borough’s neighborhoods with the highest rates of infection—Chelsea, the Lower East Side and East Village, Greenwich Village, and Harlem—are the same ones that experienced the most marked and rapid gentrification in the ensuing years...’The dynamics of death and replacement’ is her term for this confluence of endemic death and New York’s real-estate boom.”